House Hunting by Chris Keefer

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House Hunting by Chris Keefer
Illustration by Sue Babcock

“It’s in absolutely move-in condition!” the petite realtor gushed with conviction as she turned the key and ushered me into a tasteful foyer.

“Mm, I don’t know,” I frowned slightly, “I smell zombie blood.”

Her cheeriness slipped ever so slightly. “No, no! Our crews are thorough. The best in the business. We use a thirteen-point sanitizing system. It leaves absolutely no trace.”

I turned from her earnest reply, unconvinced, and wandered into the kitchen. Oftentimes, it was where the most killings took place. I wondered if the victims fled here to make their final stand; where they felt more secure. The kitchen is, after all, the room where everyone gathers, no matter how nice the rest of the house is. A bubble of dark humor hummed in my throat: its where the food is.

Cheery Real Estate Lady pushed past my comment. She presented the dining area with wide arms, like Julie Andrews. “What do you think of this light?”

“I think it’s the best feature,” I said warmly, tacitly agreeing to get beyond my rebuttal as well. She had a point. The sunshine gleamed on the buffed terra cotta floor. Streaks of it bounced around the open living area, dispelling shadows, brightening the panes of double French doors. I caught a glistening in the realtor’s eyes as she squinted past the sunshine.

Was she trying to jerk a tear at the loveliness of the place? Was she that desperate to sell? Or was she trying to garner sympathy? Maybe in her world, sympathy sold. Maybe it saved lives.

We moved into a short hallway where the master bedroom was stunningly complimented by another French door that opened onto a cozy patio, lush with flowers in chic containers, and shaded with a mature Japanese maple.

“I love all this glass, but I’m not so sure these doors are defensible,” I said.  

“Oh, but they are!” my escort bubbled. “There’s a panic button in every room. See?” She brushed her hand over a panel the size of an index card mounted on the wall next to the light switch. A smooth humming noise began and I watched a set of three-inch thick, cylindric rods telescope down from the gutter, barring every door and window. Impressive, but not fast enough, I thought, as they slotted themselves neatly into shallow cups on the patio steps.

“The alarm system is triggered when any panic button is activated. We disengage the alarm when the house is on the market. We don’t want the Squad to have to scramble every time we show the place.” She giggled her way through the last set of words, turning up her high wattage smile, as if to compensate for the current lapse in safety. 

“Mm,” I said again. Having the alarm disengaged would be in my favor.

The master bath was huge; the porcelain newly polished, the stained grout replaced. Real estate lady followed me in. Her delicate hand was on the doorknob, her fingernails thick with shiny gel. Tiny works of art in red and gold. The faint tang of decay was stronger here, like someone had burnt toast a week ago.

Sensing my wariness, the realtor applied the slightest pressure, her head wobbled back and forth with chummy conspiracy. “You know, a place like this is usually snapped up within the first day. I’m really glad we were able to get in so early.”

I made my own attempt at cheeriness. “I like hunting first thing in the morning.”

She swallowed slightly, her throat giving away her nerves. “Let me show you the second floor. It’s been fortified, with access to the reserve water tank and really clever sniper nests.”

I smiled at her, a genuine, broad, truly delighted smile, as if I held an exuberant, face-licking puppy in my arms. “Yes,” I said with conviction. “That’s the feature I really want to see.”

She squirmed with giddiness. I noticed how her skin hung a bit loose on her neck. Her hair was caught up in one of those complicated buns in the back that gave her a face lift at the same time.  She led the way up the stairs to a wide-open floor plan. A brand-new, milky carpet covered two-thirds of the open space. Another room—an office, perhaps? —and a half bath completed the opposite side. A bank of eyebrow windows provided light, privacy and lookouts. The ceiling angled upward from knee walls and a narrow, full-glass door set in a tastefully, but manually barred dormer, showed me the way to the roof.

I stepped out, inspected the slates, the brick parapet, the grated steel walkway that encompassed the entire perimeter, and the three-by-three platforms on each corner. I looked out over the neighborhood of older, retro-fitted Capes. All the mature trees had been taken down. Slender, aesthetic but short Japanese maples replaced the classic elms and birches. Defenses were looking better. I liked this place.

I began firing off my questions: can the bars be sped up? How far away is the nearest Squad? What’s the capacity of the cistern? Lined with copper or carbon plastic? When was the last scourge? What are the neighborhood security fees?

Cheery Real Estate Lady scrambled with her neatly stapled sheaf of papers, sputtering the information as she found it. Her hand trembled.

Then, one of her fingernails fell off.

It made a tiniest tick on the slates. We both heard it. She risked a glance at me, probably hoping I hadn’t. She tucked her hand beneath the papers, but not before I saw her finger was missing the natural nail, which the fallen one had disguised.

I shifted my stance, drew a deep breath. Even in the early morning breeze, I caught the barest waft of decay under her lily of the valley perfume. I wanted to scold her. That scent never works; sandalwood was better, even cinnamon. But no sense in giving her fashion advice now.

She had given it a good go: her profession, her upscale style and perky demeanor, the nails, the form-fitting dress, the fashionable shoes. She had surely tried very hard to disillusion herself about the outcome for years and had probably paid a great deal for the serums, the training and the programs designed to prolong her integration. Most of the wealthy did so, but with the same inevitable results. There was no stopping it. Failed vaccines had bankrupted major countries.

I smiled in what I hoped was a kind manner as I loosened the stiletto harbored up my sleeve. No sense in re-staining the carpet or the grout. I’m sure the thirteen-point sanitizing system was excellent, but no doubt, expensive.

“You know,” I said warmly, impressing good will into my voice. “I’ll take it! Let’s go down and get started on the paperwork. In the kitchen.”

BIO: Chris Keefer writes the Carrie Lisbon historical mystery series, humorous rants, newspaper and magazine articles, and zombie/fantasy stuff.